On many Saturday mornings, Matt LaBerta loads his bike trailer with tools, tubes, a pump and his two sons to provide support for Trailnet’s Community rides. Matt has been helping our riders for five years and looks forward to each new ride season.
“The community rides are just fun,” Matt said. “Some of the stops that we make are places that I would have never thought to explore on my own. I bring the kids partly out of necessity, but mostly to expose them to these neat things about St. Louis. It shows them a whole other world and culture. Plus, it’s cool for them to see what I do.”
Matt has used his bicycle for transportation all of his life, often in places where pedaling to get where you need to go is a real challenge. Before his sons were born, Matt spent eight months living in a tent located 14,000 feet above sea level in the mountains of Colorado. He worked as a mechanic at a bike shop 9,000 feet below his campsite. “It took me seven minutes to get to work and forty-five minutes to get home.”
Although Matt prefers using a bike to get around, he does own a car and has been driving for a few years now.
“I took driver’s ed when I was thirty,” he said. “I got engaged and got my driver’s license in the same week. None of my friends were surprised that I had popped the question, but they were really shocked that I had gotten a driver’s license.”
As a bike commuter, Matt feels one of the most important roles Trailnet plays in the community is “getting people together and providing opportunities for cyclists, walkers, and other outdoor enthusiasts.” He added, “The encouragement that Trailnet provides is really important for making St. Louis a safer environment for cyclists. Drivers in St. Louis are finally getting used to having bikes on the road – lots of people ride year-round now, and it makes it better for everyone.”
In spite of these improvements, he also believes Trailnet has a lot of work to do in educating drivers, bicyclists and law enforcement.
“All of the new bike lanes and signage in town are great, but if cyclists and drivers don’t know how to use them safely, it pushes us all farther apart instead of bringing us together,” Matt said. “Cyclists know the laws because a lot of them have learned them the hard way. How to deal with pedestrians and bicycles should be a part of driver’s education and the driving test.”
One specific risk that Matt feels needs urgent attention is the use of cell phones by drivers. “I’ve been in situations where a whole line of cars aren’t paying attention to a traffic signal because they are all texting on their phones,” he said. “It’s really scary. Like a lot of different problems that we face, education and looking out for each other are the keys.”
Matt’s passion for bicycling and bike mechanics began when he was his son’s age. He had a series of bicycles growing up and routinely took the bikes apart, “spreading all of the parts across the driveway.” He got into welding 15 years ago and began creating sculptures, gates, fences, and interior metalwork for residential and commercial clients. His interest in welding meshed with his love of bicycles when he took a frame-building course in Oregon 10 years ago. At his bike shop in Soulard, Matt provides a range of services, including production of hand-built bike frames.
“I start by taking biometric measurements of my client, make a two-dimensional full-scale drawing of the frame, and then cut and file all of the tubing by hand.”
Visiting Laberta and Sons Cycles on a Saturday afternoon is a little like seeing all of those bike parts spread out on his family driveway – frames at various stages of completion, components, accessories, and tools. If visitors are lucky, they’ll also get a chance to talk with Mason and Mylo, the “Sons” of LaBerta and Sons. When asked about how they like working the community rides with their Dad, the boys had ready answers:
Mason “likes going down hills and having donut breaks.” Mylo likes “the Art Museum and helping Dad fix flat tires.” Matt reports that the boys often recognize people from past rides who they have helped and ask them if their bikes are ok.
Community riders will no longer be treated to the sight of the two young LaBertas sharing their Dad’s bike trailer. Now six years old, Mason will be riding his own bike, and Mylo, five, will be traveling solo in the trailer. Mason is looking forward to being on his own bike and “racing all of the people.” Mylo said he “won’t miss Mason because Dad puts toys in the trailer for me.”
St. Louis now has more than 200 miles of bike lanes and trails, and the goal of the Gateway Bike Plan is to nearly double that number in the next two years. The number of bicyclists taking advantage of these facilities has also increased. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of people commuting by bicycle in St. Louis nearly tripled, and the number of people taking to the roads and trails for fun and recreation has increased dramatically.
Although these improvements are a great start, bike lanes can only increase the safety of bicyclists if both motorists and cyclists understand how to negotiate these facilities safely and responsibly. When statistics on pedestrian deaths are considered, this makes the need for responsible driving habits even more urgent. Twenty-one pedestrians were killed in St. Louis City last year, the highest number in thirty years.
For ten years, Harold Karabell has led bicycle tours that highlight St. Louis’ unique neighborhoods and interesting inhabitants, both living and deceased. Riders on his tours have pedaled their way through Calvary and Bellefontaine cemeteries, LaSalle Park and Soulard, Old North and “North of Old North” (Hyde Park, College Hill, and O’Fallon Park), exploring the history and architecture of these fascinating parts of St. Louis. He recently led Trailnet’s Literary Tour, winding through the Central West End, Academy, and Fountain Park neighborhoods, regaling riders with the life stories of local writers such as Tennessee Williams, T.S. Eliot, and Kate Chopin while reading selections from their works. Of all of the tours that he leads, Harold lists the cemetery and literary tours as the most popular, though he himself plays no favorites.
“People seem truly fascinated by well-known authors and tombstones,” Harold says.
Harold is also a dedicated bike commuter, using his bicycle as his principal mode of transportation, a lifestyle that he concedes is a relatively new phenomenon.
“Forty-five years ago, I didn’t know a single adult bicycle commuter,” Harold says. “You would see children on bikes using them for fun and recreation, but seeing an adult bike commuter was even more unusual than dining with a vegan. My wife and I used our bikes much of the time when we became parents and were able to serve as a model of alternative transportation for the next generation. Now bikes are accepted as a legitimate and even preferred form of transportation for increasing numbers of people. We’re not marginal any longer, we’re almost mainstream.”
Harold believes that this shift came about in part because of people’s concerns about our energy dependence and related environmental issues, such as global warming.
“It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by some of the big environmental problems that we face. Riding a bicycle is the single most important thing that an individual can do to make a real contribution and feel good about yourself.”
A long-time resident of the Central West End, Harold feels fortunate to live in a “self-sufficient and sustainable neighborhood.” He describes St. Louis City as “a bike commuter’s paradise – it’s very easy for an educated cyclist to get anywhere they need to go in the city.”
Harold also sees Trailnet as an important agent for change in transportation habits.
“As the pre-eminent bicycle enthusiasm organization in the region, Trailnet builds a constituency of bicyclists and pedestrians and helps move alternative forms of transportation from the margins to the mainstream,” he says.
Going forward, Harold believes Trailnet’s most important focus should be education.
“One can learn, as I have, to ride safely and successfully anywhere in the absence of separate infrastructure, simply by taking one’s place on the road as part of the normal flow of traffic,” Harold said. “Nonetheless, we’re seeing more and better infrastructure each year. The best local example is the City’s protected bike lane on Chestnut Street, a considerable step forward compared to St. Louis’ older door-zone bike lanes. But even the best-designed infrastructure contains not-so-obvious dangers and won’t automatically prevent conflicts between bicyclists and other users of the road. Cyclists need to educate ourselves not to run red lights, not to ride in the door zone, not to be victims of the ‘right hook’ at an intersection, not to be nighttime ninjas, and not to ignore the risks inherent in riding even in state-of-the-art separate facilities.”
Whether commuters or recreational riders, people have many reasons for riding a bike – they might do so to lose weight, to save money at the gas pump, or to do their part for the environment. Harold agrees with his long-time friend Paul McFarlane from the former St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation (which became part of Trailnet in 2011), who sums it up this way: “The bicycle is the answer to every question.”
For Harold, the most important motivation for riding a bicycle is that it’s simply the most pleasurable way to travel.
“If it weren’t just joyful to get on a bike, most of us wouldn’t do it in the first place,” he says. “Being on a bike opens up the sights and sounds of the city in a way that no other vehicle can. Not being confined inside a car allows you to see your neighborhood in a new and exciting way, to hear the birds, to discover that very large part of the world that remains unknown and unknowable when speeding along in a car.”
In that spirit, Harold says, “Nothing makes me happier than to be on my bike heading toward a dinner date with a good veggie burger. Forty-five years ago, who would have imagined that such a thing would be possible for so many of us on an everyday basis?”
Ask Mayor Slay, “What’s the plan for preventing crash injuries and deaths?”
Last year there were 21 pedestrian crash deaths on St. Louis streets – the highest total in 30 years of MoDOT records. Crashes also claimed the lives of one cyclist and 31 people in vehicles. In January, Trailnet’s executive director wrote to Mayor Slay about the City’s growing traffic violence and requested a meeting to discuss some solutions.
Last month the meeting at City Hall took place, though Mayor Slay did not attend. The Mayor’s Office declined Trailnet’s recommendation to implement a Vision Zero strategy, which more than 10 US cities have done in the past several years. The City said “no” to Vision Zero, suggesting it would be an empty promise to the public because it lacks the money for implementation. Trailnet responded by saying the City of St. Louis must have an action plan for preventing crash deaths and serious injuries, and progress should be clearly articulated to residents. The Mayor’s Office agreed to create an action plan, but we have no commitment as to when such a plan will be forthcoming.
So, we’re asking, “what’s the plan?” for addressing this public safety issue. Trailnet urges all concerned about the safety of those who walk, bike, and drive in St. Louis to ask City Hall this question. Tweet your concerns to @MayorSlay using #WhatsThePlan? or email firstname.lastname@example.org and copy Trailnet. Let the Slay administration know that traffic deaths are preventable, not inevitable, and it’s time to act.
You can dish up chili, serve beer, or help with the stationary bike race, all while enjoying some great food and drink and listening to The Green McDonough Band. Be one of the first to see our 2016 Spring events calendar in its new format, the centerfold of Terrain magazine.
Trailnet has collaborated with Froebel Literacy Academy in Dutchtown for several years, delivering programs focused on encouraging active lifestyles, improving safety for students walking to and from school, and presenting opportunities for community advocacy.
Selected by their classroom teachers, Froebel’s Leadership Development students are third through fifth graders that meet once a week to concentrate on communication, collaboration and decision-making abilities. Trailnet’s Walk Ambassadors Program provides these students with an ideal platform to hone these skills in fun and creative ways, while teaching the kids about pedestrian safety.
In this year’s program, students learned about the structure of government, from the U.S. president to city alderman. After discussing some of the improvements that they would like to see in their neighborhood, the leadership students met with their 20th Ward alderman, Cara Spencer. The group had a lively discussion with Ms. Spencer about their concerns and their hopes for ways in which citizens and government officials can work together to make change happen.
Students also practiced map-reading skills by plotting the safest walking route to a friend’s birthday party on a map peppered with hazards ranging from closed sidewalks to distracted drivers. In keeping with Froebel’s emphasis on literacy, the students wrote out directions to their party, including risks that a pedestrian should watch for en route, and safety features such as crosswalks that would make the trip safer and more pleasant.
Having written careful instructions for the safest way to get to their destination, the students embellished their writing by adding other elements that a traveler could encounter along the way. Their walking chronicles expanded to include aliens, UFOs, circus animals, and even surprises found on the sidewalk like discarded dollar bills, brightly wrapped mystery gifts, or bakeries filled with goodies. The students did a masterful job of weaving these new elements into their stories, which they read aloud to their classmates. The listening skills of the audience were tested, as students were asked to list the new features that had been added to the narratives. One of the stories brought the program to a tidy close by including Cara Spencer’s donation of a birthday gift to the party.
Trailnet is grateful to the Saigh and Trio Foundations for funding Walk Ambassadors in Dutchtown and to Alderman Spencer for her generous and genuine interest in her young constituents. Special thanks to Mr. Von Smith, Froebel’s Family and Community Specialist, for his tireless dedication, and to the inspiring students at Froebel, who are mapping out a bright future for themselves through their hard work and enthusiasm.
Trailnet’s initial group of 12 Walk Bike Ambassadors are now trained advocates! Their day-long training on January 23 featured a variety of activities and speakers, including St. Louis Alderman Christine Ingrassia and St. Louis County Councilor Pat Dolan, who provided their views on effective advocacy. Richard VonGlahn of Missouri Jobs With Justice presented a two-hour “empowerment training,” outlining key elements of organizing people and campaigns.
The Ambassadors are developing their plans for the year, which will focus on at least one of Trailnet’s priority campaign issues. They will work in their respective communities to build relationships with key leaders and organize residents who are supportive of Trailnet’s work.
Father and son Richard and James Fox spent a blustery Sunday afternoon in January giving away bike lights to riders on the Forest Park bike path. The pair, along with James’ girlfriend Skye Clogson, flagged down cyclists pedaling up the popular trail along Skinker Boulevard.
Richard’s interest in cycling safety has a long history. While attending college in Tuscon, Arizona, he founded Share the Road, a company that manufactured high visibility cycling clothing. After hearing of a cyclist who was left paralyzed after being struck by a car, Richard came up with the light project to impress on his son the importance of riding safely and to help keep other cyclists safe.
The Fox’s chose Forest Park because they knew that it was a popular route for urban riders. Standing to the side of the bike path, they waved down any riders who lacked this important safety asset.
“People were super skeptical at first,” says James. “They had never seen anyone do this. Many wouldn’t stop and my dad had to run alongside them.”
“Everyone was suspicious about ulterior motives,” says Richard. To get riders’ attention, he often called out “Your mother would be happy that we gave this to you.”
“Ride as much or as little, or as long or as short as you feel. But ride,” James quotes cycling champion Eddie Merckx. Cycling is independence for James. “Even the most social person… needs time to themselves and cycling does that for me.”
The father and son share their passion for cycling and spent two weeks together during the summer of 2014, riding from St. Louis to Breckenridge, Colorado.
James is now studying Public Health at New York University. He is a member of the NYU Cycling Team and races in the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference. This takes him to competitions all along the eastern seaboard. He is also navigating the streets of New York City on a bicycle, far different from the rural roads near the family home in Wildwood. While he plans to work as a doctor or a health care analyst, he dreams of owning his own bike shop one day.
Of their recent light project, Richard remarked, “There was such a great reaction. I think we’ll do it every year.” As the sun started to fade that Sunday in Forest Park and the Fox family packed their gear into their truck, they saw a cyclist approaching in the twilight. Richard was impressed with the intensity of the lights on the oncoming bike. They waited, idling as the rider neared. The cyclist looked familiar. As he passed, James, Richard and Skye saw that the lights on the bike were theirs. They flashed their headlights at the grateful cyclist, and I waved back.
As detailed in the Post-Dispatch, MODOT’s 2015 plan for re-paving and replacing some old signals on Gravois in the City of St. Louis also proposed several street closures; that last item was wildly unpopular. Now, nine months later, MODOT has unveiled a new plan for Gravois and the street closures are no longer part of it. The new Gravois plan will be presented to the public in an “open house” format on January 12th, from 4-7 pm at the Five Star Senior Center, 2832 Arsenal Street. Trailnet will submit comments to MODOT on whether this new plan goes far enough to improve walkability, bikeability, traffic safety and opportunities for economic development on Gravois. Come out to the January 12th meeting, take a look at the plans, talk to MODOT, talk to Trailnet (we’ll be there), and decide what you think!
Twelve energetic, engaged and diverse individuals were recently selected from among 45 applicants to be Trailnet’s first Walk/Bike Ambassadors. They are: Deidre Brown, Florissant; Jodi Devonshire, City of St. Charles; Chris Freeland, St. Louis (Tower Grove East); Robin Medici, St. Louis (Northhampton); Chris Mileski, Wildwood; Aaron Mollette, St. Louis (Holly Hills); Michele Oesch, St. Louis (Skinker/DeBaliviere); Margie Oliver, Hazelwood; Don Orf, St. Louis (St. Louis Hills); Steven Peyton, Belleville; Ramona Scott, St. Louis (Greater Ville); and Patty Szymkowicz, Chesterfield. These folks will have a day-long training session later this month and then volunteer time to expand awareness of Trailnet and to build our advocacy capacity in the region. They’ll develop relationships with community leaders, participate in advocacy campaign events, promote active living, and recruit other Trailnet supporters (and potential future ambassadors). Stay tuned for more updates!